“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

28 April 2016

This House Believes We Should Leave the European Union - LSE debate speech

I was proposing the motion alongside Dr Gerard Lyons (economic adviser to the Mayor of London), with journalist Hugo Dixon and Professor of Political Theory Katrin Flikschuh on the other side arguing against. Each panellist had seven minutes to speak, followed by questions from the other side and then questions from the audience.
Dr Gerard Lyons making his case for leaving the EU.

[This is an amalgam of what I had planned to say in my speech and what I did say – so I missed out some of this in actual delivery while adding some ‘umms’ and ‘errs’ and various other stuff]

The whole debate is now available to listen via a podcast here.

Hello everyone.

I want to start off by emphasising that I’m actually a pro-European. I always have been. I even like an idea of the EU (as an idea, albeit not the idea).

But on the balance I think we should leave the EU. I’m probably about 80-20 or 70-30 in favour, but this is the political choice I’ve made.

So, why? 

There are a lot of aspects to this debate but the one I’m going to focus on as probably the most important is borders and citizenship.

It’s surely fundamental to any nation and nation-state that it has control over who can come to live, work and own land within its borders. But Britain does not have this in the EU. You can see where accountability lies from David Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’. Whether you agree with it or not, he had a proposal which he put to the people in a manifesto to restrict EU migrant in-work benefits. But he went off to Brussels and 27 other leaders said ‘no way’, so he couldn’t do it. This shows how accountability is working for us in our democracy at the moment: Cameron isn’t accountable to the British people but to these other EU leaders.

Britain is actually a pretty small and crowded piece of land but it is open to pretty much unlimited population growth as we stand in the EU. England is where almost all migrants come to settle and is now the most crowded country in Europe.

In a narrow sense the booming housing market this creates is good for people with assets and for the Exchequer in bringing in tax receipts from all the buying and selling. But for people who are not so fortunate, who are not asset owners and do not earn big wages, the chance of living in the place where you grew up and where your family and friends live is passing out of reach.

A lot of people especially on the liberal-left are in denial about this link, but it’s one of the most basic laws of economics – increased demand puts upward pressure on prices. There’s no way around it.

But it also costs us all, for this throws more and more people on to the mercy of the state. The housing benefit bill in particular has been ballooning recently. In 2015 it hit £25 billion. The places it has been increasing most are here in London and towns like Cambridge, Oxford, Bournemouth and Milton Keynes where population growth has been most pronounced.

This lack of control adds to the character of our politics as something that is done to us, that happens to us without any involvement on our part. It contributes to a general malaise in politics and democracy in which many people cannot be bothered to vote, and there is some reason for that, for what the political parties are dealing with are relatively marginal questions.

For me, the environment is very important. But continual mass immigration means continual expansion into our environment, treating our land as a resource to try and meet the needs of the growing population and economy: for more housing, more roads, more schools, more everything.

The Green and Pleasant Land is becoming progressively less green and more cramped. We are progressively losing the luxury of space and submitting ourselves to a world of urban sprawl, noise, congestion and pollution.

Now leaving the EU will not solve these problems. But it will give us and the people we elect the ability to do something about them. This is a crucial point about leaving. It does not commit us to a type of politics. It simply re-asserts the primacy of the relationship between electors and elected which being in the EU dilutes. This will make our politics and our democracy more meaningful. It would bring back essential political questions to us and to people we elect.

But if we’re going to do anything about these issues, I’m afraid we have to leave the EU.

Also, there is the cost. For ceding control of all this and more through the European Court of Justice and the European Commission, we pay £250 million a week, which breaks down to £480 per household per year. This is not a small amount and could prove useful at home.

Probably the best argument of those who want us to stay is that Britain will lose influence in the world. There is some truth in this, in that Britain’s elites and their allies like in America will have less influence on what the rest of Europe thinks and does. We have a 28th share or perhaps to be more generous and realistic an eighth or maybe even a fifth of a share of influence at the European ‘top table’.

So I think it might be right to call this referendum a choice between having control over our own country or our elites having a share of control over others.

Many thanks to the LSE Forum for Philosophy for the invite.

22 February 2016

Time to declare on the EU referendum

I have changed my mind on Europe. Or perhaps it’s better to say that I have now properly thought about it, looking not through a lens of vaguely liking ‘Europe’, foreign countries and people but for what the EU is and does as an institution.

This forthcoming referendum on 23rd June is not on ‘Europe’ as a place, but the EU as an institution, one which has great power over Britain and whose 27 other leaders have the power of veto over even quite modest domestic legislation here.

We have just seen the latter point with David Cameron’s watered-down ‘renegotiation’ or ‘deal’ demonstrating in stark terms how our government no longer has the power to decide the country’s future in the interests of its citizens. It is subservient not just to veto from the leaders of France, Greece, Poland, Slovakia, Portugal and others, but also to the diktats of the unelected, virtually unaccountable European Commission and European Court of Justice.

We may like some of those diktats, for example on employment protections. But it perhaps reflects the sorry state of the left that so many of us have been happy to trade our own ability to make such rules, while throwing a tidy €10 billion a year or €31 million a day net into the bargain.

The employment protection point is part of the argument being put forward by Labour and other lefty people that the EU is more ‘progressive’ than the British government. But this is an anti-democratic argument – something its advocates seem to be only dimly-aware of. It’s a preference for the EU as a relatively benign if expensive dictatorship over the contingencies of British democracy, less than a hundred years after we become a full democracy.  

Turn to Labourites in favour of leaving the EU and you find Frank Field, Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart: people who when they speak, you listen, because you know they will not be garbling whatever Labour’s narrowed-down consensus view is. They have actually thought about it for themselves and come to their own conclusions rather than accepting the levelled down generic view of the tribe.

On the Tory side too, MPs who are genuinely worth listening to like Sarah Wollaston and Zac Goldsmith have declared for Leave. There is currently a sport going on from Remainers listing all the unappetising individuals on the leave side. Nigel Farage, George Galloway, Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling may not be attractive bedfellows, but they are no worse than George Osborne, Jeremy Hunt, Phillip Hammond and Michael Fallon on the other side. Throwing mud has a place in politics, but we’re best off sticking to the arguments.

The EU is not all bad and it does facilitate valuable cooperation in many areas. But is that ability to sit in meetings anywhere near worth the extreme expense of it and all the meddling? EU institutions are expert at telling governments and people what they can and can’t do, but have proved themselves completely incapable of dealing with their own problems like the migrants/refugee crisis, the Euro crisis and Greek default.

The restrictions it imposes prevent individual governments and authorities from acting to deal with their own problems. I was watching the Chelsea vs Manchester City FA Cup tie yesterday – a game in which the former put out its first eleven and latter played a bunch of youngsters from its £200 million Academy. Yet only two out of 22 starting players were British, let alone English. Leaving the EU would not solve this problem, but it would make it possible for government and football authorities to try and do something about it.

Football is a microcosm for what has been going on in British economy and society over the past twenty years. We have been importing from abroad rather than nurturing from within; growing by acquisition rather than organically. Leaving the EU would not be a panacea, but again it would give our own authorities more opportunities to intervene and make changes where they see fit. This is about our ability to control our own destiny.

On the other side, looking at arguments from Remain campaigners and you see a consistent theme: of risk, of dangers; but these are the risks and dangers of freedom. Politicians who are afraid of having more power are showing their lack of confidence in themselves and in government, which makes it all the more interesting how liberals and the left have gone this way. It is remarkable how ‘progressives’ have become so conservative.

A BBC News guy who was interviewed on his own channel the other day put it as well as anyone, that those ranged on the Remain side – from the grey leaders of Brussels to President Obama, big business bosses and all the major political parties – have the distinct appearance of a sort of ‘global Establishment stitch-up’.

Remainers have not been backward in throwing more loaded insults at Leavers – Europhobes, xenophobes, anti-Europeans, little Englanders etc. This has mostly been coming from liberal-left In supporters, whose language is remarkably absolutist– as if their position comes from a higher authority and a higher law [EU law?]: conferring morality, knowledge and rationality onto them and immorality, ignorance and irrationality onto their opponents.

This sort of nonsense works both ways: it annoys and alienates those like me who are now genuinely Euro-sceptic, but it also appeals to the tribal, herd instinct of people not wanting to stand out and look stupid in the eyes of their peers. I don’t know which of those tendencies will prove stronger, but it has made me more resolute that I’m for Leave.

13 February 2016

On English identity and Labour

The language of human ‘identity’ often misleads us into thinking about it as something out there which matches something in here – a literal ‘it’ which is identical in both, rather like in a mathematical equation.

In this way you would have an English identity for example if you somehow matched up to a list of English identifiers which we can measure you against. There is an ‘it’ of Englishness out there in this sort of account, and whoever has access to it can decree how English you are by comparing their checklist to you and your likes, dislikes, activities etc.

My point here is that someone else other than you can carry out this operation of identity without involving you at all. It is an authoritarian relation, attained by someone with authority matching their knowledge of what an identity is against you and coming up with a result on their terms of what these ‘its’ - of identity and you - are.

The same goes when we measure up any sort of identity – to Englishness, to the Labour Party or to the left more generally for example – it is our ‘it’ we are measuring up to and it is us doing it. The activity of measuring up and prescribing what measurements apply is what makes the identification.

We might see here how identity is better thought about as a relation. We can administrate it to ourselves and to other people and we can accept the administrations of others, but the essence of it lies in a relation, and relations don’t have to be grounded in any type of authority doling out knowledge and prescribing what ‘it’ is. I may have an intense attachment to the land and/or the music of England for example without wanting to wave the flag around or support the football team or without living in or having been born in England at all.

John Denham

For the Labour Party now, Englishness and England have become live issues that many in and around the party have started to concern themselves with – better late than never we might say. During the week I attended the first seminar of a series at Westminster being run by the former Labour MP John Denham, who has been on the case for a while now and is pushing it further from a new position as Professor of English Identity and Politics at Winchester University. You can see John’s reflections on this first seminar (entitled Does England Matter?), on his website the Optimistic Patriot.

There were some interesting contributions from Labour politicians including Lisa Nandy MP, Camden Council leader Sarah Hayward and other MPs including Caroline Flint, Jonny Reynolds and Gavin Shuker – plus others like the academic Mike Kenny and the Labour research expert Lewis Baston. I also garbled out a few words offering caution on getting too prescriptive about identity and favouring a new English national anthem as a great way to open up the space of identity - in terms of something to be explored in a democratic process rather than administered from above.  Toby Perkins, another Labour MP, has a Private Members’ Bill on a new anthem going through Parliament, but there was little if any mention, let alone support for this, from our gathered politicians.

It is early days, and the whole point of such processes is to get where you’re going through discussion and reflection and further discussion. But I couldn’t help but feel that old politician’s instinct and drive to administrate hanging in the air. We can’t quite help ourselves in trying to nail these things down – to assert and administrate who we are, what it (our version of Englishness or England) is and see who goes along with it and who doesn’t. It therefore becomes subsumed into the political process of drawing dividing lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’, friends and enemies, demarcating who belongs and who doesn’t. In turn this defeats what should surely be the object of letting more positive, inclusive versions of Englishness flourish (than those which are commonplace at the moment).

There are significant dangers for the wider Labour and liberal-left families here, for Englishness as identity at the moment often manifests itself as a negativity (both in relating others and ourselves to it), a defensiveness and as victimhood. Moreover, that defensiveness and victimhood is largely directed at things that the dominant factions in Labour and the wider liberal-left world uphold –particularly continual mass immigration. Labour’s tendency in talking to itself and fixing its own identity relations is often one which goes directly against a large body of the population. Simply positing those on to England and Englishness and saying that what we are is what England is/should be would be disastrous.

In that respect I think it’s important that we shouldn’t be in the business of fixing what Englishness is. However you try and do it, what you fix would not accord with what a great many people feel about themselves and their world – indeed it could easily alienate broad swathes from the start. Rather it is best to seek to open it up, challenge narrow definitions where and when they appear but not fall into the trap of prescribing or defining ourselves around particular alternatives. Among other things this means avoiding the tendency to always revert back to how important immigration and immigrants are to Englishness. There is certainly some truth in this account, but unless you emphasise how important those of non-immigrant backgrounds are too, you find yourselves inevitably narrowing to an ‘us’ and ‘them’ that excludes as well as includes and defeats the whole purpose.

These existential questions are inherently delicate and difficult to deal with, but for Labour they are fraught with difficulty, which perhaps partly explains why so many in the party want to avoid them altogether.

Nevertheless, with polling showing how a consciousness of English identity has risen significantly in recent years, they need to be taken on by any political party with national pretensions, let alone one like Labour which has been showing signs of possible extinction across much of England.

16 November 2015

On ideology and the denial of Islamic terror

An ideology is above all a system of belief into which everything must fit and that therefore assumes a sort of ultimate, absolute knowledge

This attachment to absolute, over-arching knowledge is why adherents so easily slip into authoritarian thought and behaviour. After all, if you know the core truth or the root causes of what is going on, actual truths presenting themselves to you in reality are of relatively little importance; indeed it is surely right to ignore them and concentrate on the more important underlying truth – even (and perhaps especially) if it contradicts what you can see and hear in reality.

From liberal-left practitioners, we can perhaps see this latter tendency most obviously in the reaction to terrorist attacks committed in the name of Islam like those in Paris on Friday night. 

The cry goes out that this phenomenon 'is nothing to do with Islam’ or 'has nothing to do with religion’ even when the killers keenly and openly justify their actions in terms of Islam. This is the most extraordinary double-think you might say, or else simple downright lies. 

But it makes perfect sense in terms of ideology, for in ideology the actual truth is subservient to the real, underlying truth. In this way it commands what ‘is’, so Islamic terrorism ‘is’ nothing to do with Islam, even when it quite patently is something to do with it - albeit not everything.

RIP to all the victims of the attacks in Paris and thoughts go out to everyone directly affected by them. Maurice Duruflé's 'Requiem' here is a lovely piece of work, doing what the best music does in these situations and words alone cannot.

 Maurice Duruflé's 'Requiem' - in seven parts here, but it's the best recording I've found on Youtube. To open in a new window, click here.

3 October 2015

A Symphony for the Labour Party (Vaughan Williams’ 6th)

Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote his 6th Symphony partly in reaction to the land mine that fell on the Café de Paris in London during the Second World War, a bomb which killed Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson and members of his West Indian Dance Band Orchestra who were performing there.

Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 6, played by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Roger Norrington
Click here to create a new window for the video.

In a reference to the victims of that tragedy of war we hear in the symphony’s third movement the snaky, sinuous but ethereal sound of a saxophone backed up with a pulsing jazz beat. But it is framed by a piece which is tumultuous and angry, broken with a few moments of introspection and a short window of radiant beauty towards the end of the first movement. The fourth and final movement rounds the symphony off with a feeling of drifting and desolation, the strings evoking a gasping, uneven breath dying out to nothingness.

For me, it is a symphony for the Labour Party right now.

The piece, played with marvellous visceral energy in this version by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Roger Norrington, starts off furiously with great forces crashing and banging against one another. The way I am hearing it now referring to Labour, this first movement depicts the hard left busting in, bringing irresistible hard-driving momentum and completely overwhelming the Blairite New Labour and Brownite tendencies in the leadership race. A beautiful melancholic melody briefly pulls us away, offering a pause for breath and some clarity. But it soon resigns itself to defeat, submitting to the more powerful forces.

The second movement (starting at 8.10) seems to be where we are now: adjusting and adapting to the new reality: a place full of edginess and foreboding but still ticking along with a repeated rat-a-tat to keep us grounded. This ebbs and flows until coming to a head with a great collision (perhaps with the electorate next year?), marked by a fusillade of noise which then declines into quiet distress.

The third movement (starting at 17.18) sees a new push with renewed fury and energy, but offering little joy or solace except for the ethereal saxophone solos suggesting a different and better world that could have been. After a brief lull it breaks out into a relentless, crashing, compulsive tumult of noise. But this soon breaks down, giving way to the final movement, the Epilogue.

At the time when the symphony was released to the world in 1948 (and it was played live more than a hundred times within two years), some critics interpreted this eerie finale as like wandering in the ruins of a nuclear holocaust. Vaughan Williams himself rejected these interpretations, quoting Prospero’s words from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep”.

In those terms it evokes what some Labour people were saying about party unity during the Ed Miliband years: ‘the quietness of the grave’.

I’m not one for making prophecies, but the symphony seems to have a particular resonance at the moment.

It's like the first movement has happened, the second is happening now and the angry clashes of the third will follow sooner or later when the resurgent hard left finds its way blocked and lashes out in a final confrontation against challengers and critics.

The challenge for those who see disaster ahead is to get into a position where they can win that confrontation and prevent this symphony’s bleak final movement coming to pass.  Without some sort of major change and intervention, it surely will though. The old ways do not work anymore, if they ever did indeed without the charisma and flawed vision of Tony Blair.

From the ‘Blue Labour’ or ‘One Nation Labour’ tendency, Jon Cruddas has been busy producing some fascinating analysis on the last election and what it means for Labour. Frank Field has also been getting out there, pushing his prescient but unpopular messages (with the Labour tribe) about the importance of national borders in the ultra-globalised environment in which we find ourselves (and also latterly on tax credits).

From the more mainstream centrist wing of Labour, Luke Akehurst has been doing sterling work promoting the ‘Labour First’ grouping as a countervailing force to the Corbynistas, with new deputy leader Tom Watson and leadership candidate Yvette Cooper notable attendees at its meeting during the Brighton conference.

We shall see what happens. Jeremy Corbyn has a huge mandate from members and supporters that should be respected. It could easily break down though, especially if and when election results go against Labour next May and the unions decide it’s time to be more realistic. Whether a reversion to a new version of the old status quo will prove to be the way forward remains to be seen.

Personally, I have serious doubts and am more interested in what the likes of Cruddas and Field have to say. However, as we can hear in the 6th Symphony featured here, a nice tune counts for little against brute political force.

For more on Vaughan Williams and his music, have a look at the companion piece to this article: ‘Vaughan Williams: a British music for the world’.